John Honerkamp is an RRCA and USATF-certified running coach, celebrity marathon pacer, and recognized leader in the New York City running community.
Running is one of the most accessible, enjoyable forms of exercise you can participate in. Not only is it great for cardiovascular exercise and leg-strengthening (particularly if you incorporate hills or sprints into your routine), it’s also an excellent way to bolster mental health.
Running can also be a high-intensity, high-impact workout that may lead to injury. This is particularly true if you’re running long distances, you’re running on rugged terrain, or if you don't prioritize cross-training and stretching. Preventing running injuries often comes down to knowledge, self-awareness, and avoiding over-zealous training. Here’s what you need to know about preventing common running injuries.
The vast majority of runners’ injuries are related to overuse. Essentially, a runner places too much stress on a specific muscle group or body part based on their body’s ability to handle the stress. In other words, the level of stress (or the number of miles logged running) that causes injury in one runner may not cause injury in another due to personal differences in fitness, the type of terrain being tackled, differences in body frame or mechanics, and what other types of activities are being engaged in.
Knee, ankle, and lower-leg injuries are the primary challenges for runners, with Achilles tendinopathy, stress fractures, medial tibial stress syndrome, patellofemoral pain syndrome, plantar fasciitis, iliotibial band syndrome, and ankle sprains all reported as common injuries.
Given that most running injuries are related to overuse, one of the best ways to prevent running injuries (even if you run every day) is to listen to your body and rest when you’re feeling tired or sore. Prioritize rest, nutrition, stretching, and recovery. You may want to have a couple of “light days” each week when you run fewer miles, go at a slower pace, or stick to easier terrain.
Make sure you’re using the right running shoes for your foot type and gait, avoid logging too many miles on hard terrain like concrete or asphalt, and spend time stretching and cross-training to prevent muscle imbalances that can put unwanted stress on specific bones or joints.
Stretching, massage, and cross-training are the best tools to prevent running injuries, as they help you keep a balanced musculature and an ideal range of motion for the muscles and joints used while running.
Items like a high-quality yoga mat, a foam roller, massage balls or a massage gun, and simple strength-training tools like therabands may be helpful. You may also want to invest in a stretch strap, yoga blocks, and a yoga bolster if your lower body is particularly tight. These can help you stretch adequately without straining or experiencing unnecessary discomfort.
A general rule of thumb is to replace running shoes about every 350 miles, but actual scientific evidence to support that number varies. Generally speaking, depending on the shoes, the materials, how you’re using them, and how they feel, you can probably get away with replacing your shoes somewhere between 250 to 400 miles.
Or, if you’re running three miles, five times a week, that means replacing your shoes every four to 10 months. And, believe it or not, your own “comfort filter” for how your shoes feel, really may be the best barometer for assessing when a replacement is needed.
Athlete’s foot is a fungus that often grows between the toes. This ailment, while not overly serious, can certainly be uncomfortable as the symptoms include red, flaky, itchy skin that might crack.
Warm, sweaty feet are the perfect environment for these fungi to grow, which is why the ailment is common in runners. Treatment usually includes creams or sprays applied to the affected area to help kill the fungus.
Shin splints (also known as medial tibial stress syndrome, or MTSS) describe pain that occurs on the front of the lower leg typically focused on the inner edge of the shin bone.
Inflammation of this area's soft tissues and bones is the direct cause of the pain, but in general, there’s an underlying issue typically associated with overuse. The best treatment is to take a break from your workouts, and ice and compress the area until you’re pain-free. Runners may perform shin-strengthening exercises to avoid this pain.
Runner’s knee, also known as patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), broadly refers to pain at the front of the kneecap. It’s very common in athletes due to repeated stress placed on the knees during running, jumping, twisting, and changing direction.
Common causes include high levels of physical activity, a sudden increase in activity, or a muscular imbalance (typically in the quadriceps) that affects the proper tracking of the kneecap. If you experience runner's knee, you will need to see a healthcare provider to assess the root cause of the issue. Switching activities, resting, and icing the knee will generally help to alleviate pain. Runners can also do some strength exercises targeting the quads to avoid this pain.
Stress fractures are injuries to the bones that take place when repeated stress is placed on a particular area and the bone weakens before experiencing a crack or break. Stress fractures are most common in the tibia and fibula of the lower leg or the metatarsals of the foot.
Runners are particularly prone to stress fractures due to the stress placed on the lower body while running. To identify and treat a stress fracture, it’s important to consult with a healthcare provider.
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